Save the bees & go solar

Designing pollinator friendly habitats into solar farms offers a win-win.

Photo Credit: Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy

This week we experienced the longest day of the year. As the sun reached its farthest point on the horizon, it showered half of the world in the year’s fullest light. This week also marks Pollinator Week, an annual celebration of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and the other amazing and important pollinators that fertilize plants, provide healthy food for us and enhance habitats for wild animals.

With our climate warming rapidly and pollinator populations in steep decline, we need to embrace solutions. Rapidly scaling up pollinator friendly solar farms is one of those solutions.

Addressing a dire crisis: global warming

Global warming is perhaps the most dire of a series of interlocking ecological crises that have emerged from our dependence on fossil fuels, our society’s fixation on maximizing economic growth, and a “throw-away” economy built around the extraction of resources from nature and their conversion into disposable — even single-use — products that create pollution and waste. 

Human activities have caused approximately 1.0° C of warming above pre-industrial levels already. At its current pace, global warming caused by human activity is increasing at 0.2°C per decade. If the planet continues to warm at its current rate, the rise in average global temperature is highly likely to reach 1.5°C – the aspirational target adopted by the nations of the world in the Paris climate agreement – between 2030 and 2052. Warming at this intensity and speed threatens the future stability of our climate.

Environment America staff dressed as pollinators urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act on climate. Photo Credit: Staff

To avert the worst impacts of global warming, America and the rest of the world must rapidly reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2030, global net greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans will need to be slashed by 45% below 2010 levels. 

Not only is the amount of emission reductions important, but so is the speed.  Because carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants build up in the atmosphere, achieving large reductions in the near term reduces the size of the reductions we need to make later on.

We need to set our sights on a future powered by 100% renewable energy and do everything we can to reach that vision as quickly as possible.

A converging crisis: pollinator collapse

While our planet warms, other related crises scream for our attention. For example, the disturbing decline of pollinator populations. The number of butterflies, bumblebees and other pollinators is shrinking across the world. Surveys have even documented local extinctions of once-thriving pollinator species. Scientists attribute the collapse of pollinator populations to several factors, including climate change, habitat fragmentation, pesticide use and more. 

To restore pollinator health, we need to:

  • reduce the pollution that’s warming our planet

  • curtail the use of pesticides that harm pollinators

  • aggressively expand habitats so these remarkable animals have flowers to forage on and places to live.

Action to colocate solar and pollinator habitats 

One solution to climate change and pollinator declines is planting native pollinator habitats under and around the panels of solar farms.

 

Photo Credit: Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy

According to the Center for Pollinators in Energy, when solar farms were first getting going, gravel or monocrop lawn grass often surrounded ground-mounted solar panels. Now, as more American homeowners, businesses and government entities are installing solar panels, we’re seeing a desire for pollinator-friendly infrastructure to maximize the environmental benefits.

Meanwhile, solar capacity is growing rapidly. This spring, the United States had 121 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity, producing enough energy to power more than 23 million homes. And the costs of solar have come down. Between 2010 and 2018, the cost of utility-scale solar systems fell by 80%-82%.

Some local farmers, such as Jesse Robertson-Dubois already speak to the benefits of colocating solar panels and pollinator habitats on their farms.

My hometown of Amherst,  just started a working group to determine solar bylaws. One of the things they will be looking at is whether to require solar developers to plant native pollinator habitats under solar farms located in town.

In state houses across the country, lawmakers are considering ways to expand pollinator habitats. In Texas, legislators passed the Texas Pollinator-Smart program to encourage the creation and maintenance of habitats for bees, birds and other pollinators at solar energy sites. If the governor hadn’t vetoed the bill, the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension would be providing educational materials and technical assistance to those interested.

Other states have other models. For example, 12 states have published pollinator-friendly scorecards (eight of those states require them by law), which lay out a set of criteria for what is “beneficial to pollinators” within the managed landscape of a photovoltaic solar facility.

To solve the convergent crises of global warming and pollinator collapse requires society to repower with clean renewable energy, while transcending our fixation on maximizing economic growth, and our “throw-away” economy. 

Colocating solar panels and pollinator habitats won’t solve all our crises, but it is one small solution finding broad support. As we celebrate the summer solstice and Pollinator Awareness Week, let’s lean into this solution.

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Authors

Johanna Neumann

Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center

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